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Traveling with children

How to keep everyone happy during a family vacation

Traveling with children

We were finally taking our first real family vacation in years: five days visiting my parents at their Florida condo, followed by three days at Universal Studios Orlando. My ocean-loving, Harry Potter-obsessed kids were beyond excited.

I was filled with dread. All I could see were the challenges, not the potential fun. My 11-year-old daughter, S., is a differently-wired kid whose anxiety and mood swings make life a little unpredictable. My 8-year-old daughter, C., is gluten-free and the pickiest eater ever.

For advice on how to make the best memories possible, I turned to the wise hive-mind of Hudson Valley parents.

Have you prepared?
Well, of course you've prepared. You've gone down the Google rabbit hole and out again with all your research. But have you prepared your kids?

"Adults are always researching and rehearsing for a trip in our heads, or we've been there already and know what to expect," says Aileen Walsh, a child and family therapist from Accord. "We forget that kids aren't part of the internal rehearsing we've done."

Show your child pictures of where you're going, and draw
connections to past experiences to give them personal ownership of the trip. My daughters enjoyed browsing snapshots of past visits with my parents and watching videos about the attractions at Universal Studios, so they could make a list of their "must-do" rides.  

"Consider holding a family meeting before you leave," advises Walsh. "Talk about problems you've had on past trips and brainstorm how to deal with possible bumps in the road. Identify what the familiar elements might be, so kids can draw on their experience and picture themselves doing well in that situation."

While you're packing your bags, make sure you throw in some appropriate expectations, too. "I don't like to use the word 'vacation'," says Christina Vazquez of New Paltz. "Think of your trip as an 'experience' or an 'adventure' and accept that there will be ups and downs, that it won't be perfect and that's okay."

READ MORE: Tips for traveling with pets

On the move
Traveling means parents have to pull off a juggling act of expecting the unexpected, planning ahead and thinking on their feet. Aside from bringing an arsenal of snacks, toys, books and activities, the advice I heard to ease the traveling struggles breaks down into
two strategies.

First, there's the "Screen time limits? What screen time limits?" approach. If letting your child have a movie, TV or gaming marathon keeps everyone safe and sane, then so be it. My family was already tired and cranky from a delay at the airport, so once we were on the plane, I was happy to let my kids drown in their devices while I read a magazine.

The other strategy: "Getting there is half the fun." This is a great time, free of the distractions of everyday life, to play games, share stories, ask questions or even trade silly jokes. The Wishbone app is one of our favorite ways to get family discussions started. It asks simple "which do you choose" questions and lets you post your own.

Travel can even be part of the adventure. "We drove from New York to Missouri last year and I planned our trip on the Roadtrippers app," says Katie Angel of Wappingers Falls. "We stopped every eight hours and found local activities. It was the best vacation we'd ever been on."

READ MORE: Travel activities to keep kids entertained

Oh, the places you’ll go
Whether you're at a theme park or a location with great attractions nearby, you're going to have a list of things to do. Hopefully, you've let your kids help with the planning and everyone has their priorities set. The most common piece of advice I got was this: Don't treat your activities like a marathon. Break them up, and build in down time.

"We ended up not using a day of our pass on our trip to Disney World," says Alison Easton of New Paltz. "It was hard because those passes are pricey. But we were all exhausted, and that day at the hotel pool was way more fun than the hot mess of a day we would have had just to use the pass."

"Underpromising is key," says Walsh. "Once you commit to doing something, you really have to do it. Try to find the balance between planning and slowing down the rhythm, so you can actually enjoy your experiences." The added bonus of underpromising, I found, was that we had built-in positive reinforcement for good behavior. Most days, I offered up one special, optional activity to earn and my girls always earned it.

Things won't always go as planned, and that's a great learning opportunity for kids in terms of handling disappointment and being flexible. When C. learned she was too short for one of the rides on her list, she was devastated. Ditto for the moment she discovered that another ride was closed for renovation. We found a way to spin it, though. This gave us extra time to go on two favorite rides once more before leaving the park.

Unfamiliar quarters
My kids were excited about sleeping in my parents' sun porch and at the cool hotel we saw online. My husband and I knew the reality might be less awesome. We adults like our space, and our kids need their routines.

"Bring comfort items from home and set up a special nighttime ritual if you can," says Walsh, "but be flexible and willing to wing it if necessary." That might mean switching up bed arrangements or improvising so everyone can handle the amount of noise or light. We came prepared, armed with a white noise machine, ear plugs, and eye masks.

READ MORE: 10 sleeping tips for traveling with tots

"I always tell people to bring a nightlight - I think it's so important that I include one in my gift packages to clients traveling with children." says Lori Miller, a mom and travel agent in Hyde Park.

Because of C.'s dietary issues, I decided to upgrade our reservation at Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort to a family suite with a kitchenette. Even though I cringed at the added cost, this was the smartest travel decision I'd ever made. It saved time, money, and hassle to be able to make us all breakfast and pack simple meals that C. would eat.

In the end, thanks in part to the collective wisdom of local parents, we had a wonderful trip. Indelible memories were made, and even the low points are now part of our story as a family. I'll take what we learned and use it to get ready for our next adventure and hopefully you will too.

Jennifer Castle is a freelancer and author of books for kids and teens. She lives in New Paltz with her husband and two daughters.